I read an article this weekend entitled: “Teacher: A student told me I ‘couldn’t understand because I was a white lady.’ Here’s what I did then” that ran in the Washington Post. The article but moreso the reprint of the teacher’s speech that the article references, really made me sit back and think about my educational journey and measure my past teachers against the experience Ms. Smith shared in her speech.
The following is my response to The Washington Post article. The link to the original article can be found HERE.
On the whole, I had some pretty amazing teachers. The teaching workforce of the U.S. hasn’t changed much in that when I came through school I only ever had three African American teachers during my K-12 matriculation. That’s 3 out of approximately 70 instructors that I had during my first 13 years of schooling. I never thought about it this way but because we were rotated around so much for content courses, I had a LOT of different teachers growing up. Add to that the fact that we moved several times and my schooling was spread across 3 different states. My teachers were overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly female, except when it came to maths and sciences.
Our standard curriculum did not include a lot of “diversity”. In our history books there were only ever two pictorial depictions of darker skinned folks. A picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. and this one picture of three Africans chained and hunched over both of which we would talk about only during February as Black History Month. Why then do I say I had amazing teachers? Because when I would come to them and ask to insert parts of my history and the things that I held dear into my writing and reading assignments, they encouraged me to do so. I had to do everything that everyone else in the class did, but thanks to my parents, I had a huge library of resources to draw from.
If my teacher made a writing assignment to write about a significant moment in American History, I could choose to write about Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth or Ida B. Wells-Barnett or Langston Hughes. In fact, I was encouraged to do so even though other students were picking people like George Washington.
I was a minority and while I would have LOVED to have seen more of “my” culture represented within the classroom, I was thankful that my teachers did not object to me exploring those topics and integrating them into classroom discussion. I think that those teachers saw a chance to learn from me and I know that a lot of my classmates were not aware of many of the people that I introduced them to through my assignments when we shared in class. With my parents’ help, I found a way to get what I needed without disrupting the classroom over the lack of diversity in the printed curriculum.
Some would say that we should have mounted protest over the lack of diversity in the curriculum. Forced the district to teach all of the students from materials that reflected the world at large. Yes, we could have tried that; however, I believe that with each of those reports that I shared, and for every time that I took the opportunity to educate rather than rail over how unfair it was that my culture was not given equal time and consideration in our printed curriculum, I helped expose those around me to a larger world. A world they may not have encountered had they not met me at that time. And quiet as it is kept, they did the same for me.
As long as we are all willing to be both students and teachers when the occasion calls for it, we can help each other to be better.
I admire the actions that Ms. Smith took when she realized that there was something that she could do as a teacher to make learning more meaningful for her students. Her change does not appear to be surface level, but a deep, fundamental understanding that accessed her empathy and drove her to positive, purposeful action.
I cringe every time that I hear another story about how a teacher has uncovered “the secret” to connecting to “at-risk” children as using techniques like rapping quadratic equations or linking other popular culture activities to the standard curriculum. That’s not what Ms. Smith did at all. She took action to evaluate the materials that she has a say in bringing to her classroom and reached out to her students to have them bring in culturally-relevant content which could be woven into her classroom instruction. Ms. Smith built a learning partnership with her students and it made a difference. Just as those amazing teachers did with me but in a slightly different way.
It is not easy but this is the kind of care and attention students in school needed when I was coming up and it is still what they need today. It is not easy because it requires teachers to step into multiple worlds of unknowns and trust their students to engage with them in less traditional ways. It requires a shift from traditional instruction to a culture of facilitated learning. Rather than view it as frightening, we should thirst after the opportunity because it is an invitation to perpetual learning. What could be more glorious than an iterative cycle where teachers and students continuously learn from one another?
~ Marta C. Youngblood